early childhood

How one small Indiana city sees child care as a potential economic driver

PHOTO: Fuzzy Bear Ministry Preschool and Daycare
A teacher reads to students at Fuzzy Bear Ministry Preschool and Daycare in Ladoga, Indiana.

In the small city of Crawfordsville, Indiana, Mayor Todd Barton has traced the local workforce shortage back to a surprising problem: the lack of preschools, day cares, and after-school programs.

In his two terms as mayor, he has been pitching and promoting Crawfordsville, a blue-collar city of about 16,000 people that serves as the economic hub for a rural area some 50 miles west of Indianapolis. He has traveled to Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and Japan to talk about jobs and try to lure investors. He’s looking to improve the city’s housing, transportation, dining options, and other quality-of-life aspects.

But as he hears from local employers that they can’t find workers to fill hundreds of jobs, particularly in skilled positions, Barton said he also hears from residents that they can’t find or afford somewhere for their children to go while parents are working.

The difficulty of finding child care poses a barrier to wooing new businesses and workers, retaining young professionals, and connecting unemployed adults with jobs.

“We know we have a challenge,” Barton said. “The question is, how much can we impact it?”

So expanding quality child-care options has become Barton’s latest economic development project. And he’s leveraging a popular argument for early childhood education: the workforce benefits.

In Indiana, the burgeoning conversation on early learning hasn’t necessarily been driven by the educational value alone. Thanks in part to a critical push from local businesses, it’s also been about how high-quality prekindergarten can create attractive climates for businesses that want to recruit, help families get back to work and school, and foster the next generation of workers.

“As we’re recruiting folks to come to Indianapolis, the expectation of those who we are recruiting is, ‘Hey, we want our kids in a strong learning environment,’” said Michael O’Connor, director of state government affairs at Eli Lilly and Co. Lilly is among the Indiana businesses that invested in Indianapolis’ pre-K program and also advocated for the state-funded pre-K program for low-income families, known as On My Way Pre-K.

Indiana is spending $22 million this year to provide pre-K to about 4,000 4-year-olds from low-income families in 20 counties. But On My Way Pre-K is still in its early stages, and advocates have estimated 27,000 Hoosier children from low-income families, many in more rural areas like Crawfordsville, lack access to pre-K.

The economic angle will likely play a key role as advocates push to continue funding and potentially look to expand On My Way Pre-K in the 2019 legislative session, a budget-setting year.

The workforce argument for early childhood education is not new, nor is it unique to Indiana. But in this economic-minded Midwestern state, it’s been particularly persuasive in building public investment in pre-K, and raising the profile of early learning opportunities in general.

Showcasing the return on investment in pre-K, O’Connor said, was critical in garnering early support from lawmakers skeptical of the academic value for children and whether early gains would last.

“We had to get past this fundamental belief of, ‘you’re asking us to subsidize day care,’” O’Connor said. “And the way in which we wrestled that was this economic argument.”

In addition to tracking outcomes for children, state officials and researchers at Purdue University are also studying the effects of On My Way Pre-K on families. In the most recent update last October, the state found the program is reaching many children who had not previously been in child care. Slightly more than one-third of surveyed families said their children would not have attended preschool if they hadn’t qualified for On My Way Pre-K.

Parents are also required to be working or in school in order for their children to enroll in On My Way Pre-K. The survey reported that with access to pre-K, some parents were able to find new jobs or start school, increase their work or school hours, stay in a current job, search for a new job, or obtain better shifts at work.

With unemployment rates at a low point in Indiana — 3.2 percent in May, under the national unemployment rate of 3.5 percent — it’s becoming tougher, and more critical, to find new workers. That’s bringing additional interest from employers to pre-K, said Jeff Harris, director of public affairs for Early Learning Indiana, a nonprofit that advocates for early childhood education and runs preschool centers.

“People often say it’s a two-generational strategy, but it’s more,” Harris said, explaining that employers could see smaller benefits, too: fewer absences at work, less turnover of workers, more availability for night classes or other development opportunities.

In Crawfordsville, Barton said local employers are interested in the child-care issue, which they have been discussing at monthly economic development meetings. But many of the city’s largest employers have headquarters elsewhere, making it more difficult to address the issue on the ground.

Chalkbeat could not reach local contacts for comment at some of those businesses, including Penguin Random House, a book publishing company; LSC Communications, a printing company; and Pace Dairy, a dairy processing facility for Kroger.

For Barton, a Republican, his first challenge will be to determine the shortage of child care spaces and the demand for them. He said he plans to look to current providers to expand or improve in quality.

Like many of Indiana’s small and rural areas, Crawfordsville and surrounding Montgomery County simply lack child-care capacity for any ages, let alone high-quality options. Only about a dozen child-care providers in the county are registered with the state, with few on the state’s Paths to Quality rating scale and even fewer in the top quality tiers.

“It would be wonderful to have a lot of day care options and be able to review where you want to send your child based on the quality of the programming, but the reality is there just aren’t many day care options available, period,” said Brandy Allen, director of planning and community development in Crawfordsville. In supporting the economic development effort, she has also shared her personal experience of struggling to find child care.

School leaders say they’re willing to help, but are crunched for funding such efforts.

“We all have early childhood programs or preschools,” said Scott Bowling, superintendent of Crawfordsville schools. “But the limitation there, really – the funding is an issue. I hate that it always has to go back to that, but it always does.”

The state provides some funding for preschoolers with disabilities — but otherwise, districts often dip into their state funding for K-12 to support pre-K or afterschool programs. It’s yet to be seen whether lawmakers will choose to expand and increase funding for On My Way Pre-K, which is not available in Montgomery County.

“The investment that we do make in pre-K is worth it, that’s why we put in the effort. But it’s hard to go too far with that without hurting the K-12 side,” Bowling said.

Similarly, districts are tight on funding for improving the quality of their programs, said North Montgomery Schools Superintendent Colleen Moran.

On My Way Pre-K is an incentive to reach higher quality standards, since the state only allows the funding to go to providers at the top levels of its ranking system, called Paths to Quality.

“We haven’t gone a step further because we don’t have to, and there isn’t any more money to make facilities up to that high 3 or Level 4,” Moran said.

Quality poses perhaps a tougher obstacle than quantity. Supporters like Moran, Bowling, and Barton all want to build quality early childhood programs that go beyond training providers in basic health and safety to providing a planned curriculum that supports child development. Some early learning advocates even say that a low-quality program can be worse than no program at all.

But in a place like Crawfordsville, it’s a struggle to make quality part of the discussion.

In the southeast corner of Montgomery County, Fuzzy Bear Ministry Preschool and Daycare in Ladoga has received several grants to expand and improve in quality. The preschool has moved up to a Level 3, the second-highest rank on Paths to Quality, and is now working toward accreditation in the hopes of rising to Level 4.

Preschool director Kim McVay said improving the quality was “the right thing to do” to better serve children and families. She said she sees an increase in professionalism from teachers, who have received more training.

But as much as she touts the quality of the program — it’s one of just two Level 3 providers in the county — McVay said that’s not usually a deciding factor for families.

“It all comes down, 90 percent of the time, to the bottom dollar,” she said. “If we’re charging more than somebody else — nope, they’re going to go somewhere else.”

Her biggest battle, she said, is educating the community on why it’s important to have high-quality early learning.

“Paths to Quality is not understood as well as it would be in some place like Indianapolis where they have it everywhere,” McVay said. “It’s going to take time. You’re not going to change overnight the mindset that you’re starting out with.”


A fixture in Colorado’s early childhood scene prepares to step back – but not all the way

Preschoolers play at Clayton Early Learning in 2015.

On a Monday back in 2006, Charlotte Brantley arrived in Denver to interview for the top job at Clayton Early Learning.

She was up for a high-profile job in Washington state at the time, but quickly called the recruiter there and said, “Take my name off the list. I think I’ve found my new home.”

That’s how Brantley ended up at Clayton, where she’s spent nearly 13 years leading one of the state’s most visible and influential early childhood organizations.

“I just had this sense that this institution was poised to go to the next place,” she said.

Now, Brantley is preparing to retire, probably sometime next summer.

In addition to running a highly rated preschool and child care program that are part of the national Educare network, Clayton provides training and coaching to other early childhood providers, runs home visiting programs, conducts research and advocates for early childhood causes.

Brantley, who has two adult sons, started her career as a college instructor and preschool teacher in her native Texas. Soon after, she began working on early childhood policy in Texas state government, and later the federal government, as a Clinton administration appointee.

Brantley, 66, sat down with Chalkbeat to talk about the most difficult decision she made at Clayton, her frustration over lagging public support for early childhood programs, and her thoughts on governor-elect Jared Polis.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Your first early childhood policy job was for the state of Texas. What was that like?

I didn’t know a thing about policy but apparently the woman who hired me thought I could learn. When I walked in the door I was handed a piece of legislation that had passed, to say that Head Start, child care and Pre-K should learn to play well together from a policy and delivery standpoint. Nobody had any clue how to do it or what to do. I was handed that and told, “You go implement this.”

You’ve worked in many roles during your career. What’s your experience at Clayton been like?

What I’ve loved about being here at Clayton is everything I’ve ever done, it happens here. The advocacy, the policy … we’re part of Head Start. We’re part of the national Educare network. We get to advocate at the Capitol. We do research and training. It’s been a real highlight of my career to be here.

Can you share an accomplishment from your tenure at Clayton?

We didn’t have any positions that were focused on advocacy work when I came here and now we have a team of two plus myself. I would love to be able to put more money into that. I now have a board that gets it, that our being a player in state-level advocacy is highly valuable to the field at large.

In what you describe as the hardest decision of your tenure, Clayton closed a second child care site in 2017 that had opened a few years before in far northeast Denver. What was the fallout like?

Families were furious with us. It was just a firestorm. We actually had to have extra security on the campus for a while. I understood it. I’ve been a parent of babies too when I was working full time. It’s very stressful. People felt betrayed.

What did the closing say about the broader early childhood landscape?

The fact that we had to close that school is like a canary in the coal mine, that we are not investing enough in early childhood education as a country. We could not sustain that second school. We could have reduced its quality significantly and we were not willing to do that. By that, I mean we could have put more kids in each classroom and had fewer teachers and less qualified teachers and paid them less.

You said you hoped public investment in early childhood programs would have increased further by now. Looking ahead, what’s your outlook?

The voters just said no, again [to Amendment 73, a statewide ballot measure for education]. They said no to Amendment 66, [a 2013 ballot measure for education]. There are bright spots of local communities [raising taxes for early childhood], but until the whole TABOR mindset goes away — and maybe it never will go away in this state — people are not willing to have their taxes raised.

It’s disheartening to me, having been in this field as long as I’ve been in it. And there have been tremendous gains with the amount of public money going into early childhood. But the fact that we’re OK as a country with paying our teachers so little they qualify for food stamps — I don’t want to give them food stamps, I want to give them a better wage so they can afford to go buy food. We shouldn’t make them go through a welfare door to sustain their family.

How do you feel about governor-elect Jared Polis’s plan for universal full-day preschool?

Polis has talked about Pay For Success [financing for preschool]. That’s been done in Utah. I am a little skeptical, I will say. Number one, philanthropy will only agree to pay for something for so long. I don’t know where the money comes to pay them back. I’ll be really interested to see what he does and whether or not, with a [Democratic-majority] state house, he’ll be able to do anything more with that.

What early childhood development do you feel hopeful about?

It’s really the opposite side of the same coin. The fact that we now have a governor who ran on a platform of early childhood. I’m incredibly excited about that. Just the fact that he put that as one of the front-and-center pieces of his platform is awesome because I think it will keep the conversations going until we figure out more viable solutions to all of this.

Why is it so important to ‘figure out’ a way forward on early childhood?

The demographics of the country are changing, both in terms of the backgrounds of people and also the fact that the people who are my age — the Baby Boomers — we’re going to all die out. If you’ve got fewer young people coming into play, what that means is it’s all the more critical that every one of our kids is being given a solid start. A free public education has got to start at birth, for those families who want it.

What do you plan to do after you retire?

I have grandchildren in Florida. I’ll spend more time with them, and I have another son in Houston. Beyond that, I want to go back and learn to do photography again. I have already joined the Rocky Mountain Prep [charter school network] board. There might be another board or two I’m interested in. I’m so passionate about this work, I probably won’t be able to step away 100 percent.

Indiana's 2019 legislative session

Indiana faces a tight budget in 2019, lawmakers say. Will expanding pre-K be in the cards?

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Preschool and kindergarten students at George Washington Carver School 87, a magnet Montessori school in Indianapolis Public Schools.

Nearly every time the state prepares to craft a new two-year budget plan, Indiana lawmakers warn it will be difficult to balance different funding priorities. But 2019 could be especially tough, they say, since the bulk of new revenue could already be earmarked to assist children affected by the opioid crisis.

Extra resources for preschool and teacher raises are among the areas competing for the remaining funds.

“This is going to be a puzzle that we’re going to have to solve together,” said House Speaker Brian Bosma at a panel discussion hosted by the Indiana Chamber on Monday.

Bosma, a Republican from Indianapolis, said the state anticipates about $325 million to $350 million in new revenue for the next two-year budget cycle, which begins in 2019. But, he said, $275 million could potentially be earmarked for the Department of Child Services to help stem its growing caseload and staffing needs in light of Indiana’s opioid crisis.

That leaves little for new projects, such as raising teacher salaries or improving school safety resources, or expansion of existing ones, such as preschool. Half the state’s budget is generally set aside to fund schools and districts, parceled out based on a formula that factors in a school’s demographics, special education needs, and more. For the past few budgets, lawmakers have given modest increases to schools, around 2 percent.

But that doesn’t include preschool, which is funded separately as a line item. Bosma on Monday expressed some uncertainty that the program can be expanded in the way pre-K advocates have called for — requests that have ranged from adding more counties to pushing it statewide. Known as On My Way Pre-K, the program so far has cost $22 million per year and is available in 20 counties. Currently, about 4,000 4-year-olds from low-income families use grants from the program to attend a high-quality pre-K provider of their choice.

“I’m very open to expanding it, as long as the focus is on the people who can’t afford the programs themselves,” Bosma said. “The problem is, this is going to be a more difficult budget year than many are aware of … expanding the program right now might be difficult.”

Republican and Democrat leaders, from the House and Senate, said Monday that they supported an expansion of the state’s preschool program. It’s an issue that has seen broad bipartisan support, with lawmakers approving an increase in 2017.

Gov. Eric Holcomb and state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick have come out in support of expanding access to strong preschool programs, particularly in rural areas and to ensure students are prepared for kindergarten.

In the past, lawmakers have been skeptical about how much to spend on the pre-K pilot program, but each year has seen incremental increases in funding, with the number of counties quadrupling since its start.

Bosma suggested the state might have to look to other funding sources, such as ones at the federal level.

Earlier this year, Indiana applied for a federal Preschool Development Grant, which can be used to conduct a statewide needs assessment and coordinate existing federal, state, and local programs that serve children from birth to age 5, according to the grant description. Up to 40 states and territories will receive awards between $500,000 and $10 million, which are expected mid-December.

Lawmakers have also been in talks about how money could be set aside for raises for teachers and other educators. But it’s unclear how much of a pay hike is on the table or how the dollars would get from the state to teacher paychecks. Bosma said there’d be more details later this week and when lawmakers come back for session to begin in January.